Photograph of a male chaffinch

Nature Postcard from Wicken Fen

We have a treat this week in Wildlife From Your Window: a virtual postcard from a pre-lockdown Wicken Fen, written by Professor Nick Davies of the Department of Zoology.

Just before the lockdown, there was a final chance to visit Wicken Fen, still clothed in her winter’s coat of last year’s yellow reeds. Many birds were still in winter flocks. On the floods, there were hundreds of whistling wigeon, feeding intensely to fatten up for their spring migration north to breeding grounds in Iceland, Scandinavia and northern Russia.

Photograph of chaffinch specimens at the Museum of Zoology
Chaffinches at the Museum of Zoology ©University of Cambridge

A mixed flock of small birds fed on seeds in a farmyard: 17 yellowhammers, including nine bright males, and a dozen each of chaffinches and reed buntings. It’s a strange compulsion to count them all, as if to celebrate every one. Out in the fields there were a hundred fieldfares, wintering thrushes from northern Europe. Their early winter food of berries is now long gone and they are probing for worms and other invertebrates. I love their colours: pale grey rumps, brown wings, frosty white underneath, with spots on an ochre breast.

A pair of little owls sat huddled side by side on a log pile, fluffed up to keep warm. A barn owl was out hunting in the daylight, closely watched by a kestrel on a bush nearby, hoping for a chance to swoop in to steal its prey. We found some barn owl pellets in one of the hides and the bony remains were mainly of short-tailed voles plus a few common shrews.

Photograph of a barn owl specimen
Barn Owl at the Museum of Zoology
Photograph of two kestrel specimens at the Museum of Zoology
Kestrels at the Museum of Zoology

There were signs of early spring, too. Chiffchaffs, the first summer migrants, were singing their name incessantly, “chiff-chaff …chiff-chaff,” in the bare branches of the sallow tops, where they were picking and fly-catching tiny chironomid midges and other small flies among the catkins. Their specific name collybita is derived from the Greek for money-changer and refers to the song, which resembles the chinking of small coins. Watching a delicate buffy-green and yellow chiffchaff, flitting among catkins bursting with yellow pollen, against a blue sky, is surely one of the most enchanting sights of spring. At our feet, coltsfoot and celandine were in flower, surprising splashes of bright yellow on the lode banks. Our pair of cranes are back on territory, feeding close together and mainly hidden in the dense vegetation. They are so elegant and stately as they walk along and occasionally we are treated to a bugling duet “kreee-kroo” which carries for a kilometre or more over the fen. Last year they raised a single chick but it disappeared just before fledging, perhaps taken by a fox. Let’s hope they have better fortune this summer.

Photograph of a specimen of a marsh harrier at the Musuem of Zoology
Marsh harrier specimen at the Museum of Zoology

And there is another magical sound of spring, the shrill two-note “way-ee” of marsh harriers, sky dancing high overhead. They soar on upswept wings to such great heights that they are difficult to pick out with the naked eye. Then, when they reach the summit of their ascent, they begin an undulating flight – slow flaps interspersed with spectacular dives and somersaults – calling all the while for 10 or 20 minutes, before plunging with closed wings back down to the reed beds, spinning and twisting as they descend with tremendous speed.

If the lockdown continues through April, then this will be the first spring for forty years that I won’t be on the fen to greet the arrival of cuckoos and reed warblers. But for the last week I’ve discovered instead a daily route up to the beech woods on the Gog-Magog hills, just south of town. Cowslips and primroses are in bloom along the path (“brightening the greenwood with their sunny smiles”).

Photograph of cowslips in a field
Image credit: John Howlett

Bee-flies were probing into the primroses with their long proboscis. Blackthorn is still in flower (“besprinkling half-green hedges with flakes and sprays of snow”) and there were honeybees busy collecting the yellow pollen. A closer look revealed among them a few Eristalis hoverflies, superb honeybee mimics. Wild cherry has blossom, too (“wearing white for Eastertide”). And best of all, there are skylarks singing (“He rises and begins to round, He drops the silver chain of sound, Of many links without a break, In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake”).

There is paradise after all just a short walk from home and with the southerly winds and warmer weather forecast for the next week, the anticipation of more spring wonders to come.

Nick Davies (with a little help from: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Christina Rossetti, A.E. Houseman and George Meredith).

Photograph of a male chaffinch
Image credit: Matt Lowe

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